54 miles to freedom: Catholics were prominent in 1965 Selma march

This story appears in the Selma march at 50 feature series. View the full series.
Sr. Antona Ebo delivers a statement after police halted a march to the country courthouse in Selma March 10, 1965, (AP Images/©Bettmann Corbis)

Sr. Antona Ebo delivers a statement after police halted a march to the country courthouse in Selma March 10, 1965, (AP Images/©Bettmann Corbis)

by Paul Murray

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The voting rights demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago in Selma, Ala., are among the most significant events of the modern civil rights movement. They successfully rallied supporters of racial justice behind the need for government action to protect the right to vote long denied to African-Americans. The Voting Rights Act, described by many as the single most important piece of legislation passed by Congress in American history, was a direct result of the Selma protests.

Catholics played a prominent role in Selma, much more than in previous civil rights demonstrations. Never before had Catholic activists turned out in such large numbers. Now, on the 50th anniversaries of Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery march, it is fitting to honor those who participated in these historic events in March 1965.

Early in 1965, Edmundite Fr. Maurice Ouellet, pastor of St. Elizabeth's African-American mission in Selma, answered a knock at his door. He was surprised to see King standing on the front step.

"The Negro people tell me there is one white man in Selma who is black," King said by way of introduction, "and I want to meet him."

Related: Editorial: What are you willing to risk to bring about equality?

The Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader was in the midst of his historic voting rights campaign in this cotton-trading town on the banks of the Alabama River. The community was split into hostile black and white camps. White leaders used all means at their disposal to keep African-Americans off the voting rolls. Civil rights forces were equally determined to gain their constitutional rights. Ouellet was the first white Selma resident to openly support justice for African-Americans.

Frs. Francis Casey and John Paro, missionary priests from the Society of St. Edmund, established St. Elizabeth's mission in 1937. First, they built the church. Three years later, the Sisters of St. Joseph from Rochester, N.Y., opened an elementary school. The sisters also founded Holy Infant Inn, a nursing home for the aged and chronically ill. In 1944, the Edmundites acquired Good Samaritan Hospital, which the sisters built as the primary health care source for African-Americans.

Ouellet died in July 2011 at age 84. As a 13-year-old Vermont schoolboy, Ouellet viewed a home movie of Edmundite missionaries hammering the roof on St. Elizabeth's Church. "I thought those fathers were wonderful men," he recalled. "Like Christ and my own father -- they were carpenters." These men inspired him to dedicate his life to serving the poor.

Ouellet described his posting to Selma as "a dream come true." He spent his days doing "the regular things that a pastor would do. ... We visited people in their homes, we took care of the sick, we said Mass, we taught kids over at the school occasionally, visited the hospital, just took care of people generally."

This priestly routine was permanently disrupted by Bernard Lafayette, a 22-year-old organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Lafayette was a veteran of the Nashville, Tenn., lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Rides. He put his seminary studies on hold to work full-time in the civil rights movement. His primary objective in Selma was increasing the number of black registered voters.

Lafayette and Ouellet began meeting, usually late at night.

Related: Find more stories about the Selma march at Global Sisters Report.

"We talked for many hours and then for many days," Ouellet said. "He taught me that we should meet the needs of our parish; that we could spend all our time applying Band-Aids, but if we didn't get to fundamental rights, we really weren't helping."

Despite the 15-year difference in their ages, Ouellet credited Lafayette with converting him to activism: "He took me by the hand, as though I were in kindergarten, and led me to understand community relations."

Ouellet allowed Lafayette to use St. Elizabeth's parish hall as a training site for high school students working on the voter drive. Ouellet's first address at a mass meeting cemented his identification with the movement. He told his African-American audience that "they were God's children and American citizens and it was their Christian duty to vote."

The next day's newspaper displayed a photo of the priest singing "We Shall Overcome" while holding hands with a black woman. The caption said, "White Priest dances with Negro woman at Mass Meeting."

His involvement escalated. He consulted with Justice Department lawyers suing to halt discriminatory voter registration practices, worked with black ministers seeking to open negotiations with white leaders, and tried to begin a dialogue with white clergy.

He was frustrated in all these initiatives. In Selma's racially polarized atmosphere, there was no room for reasonable solutions.

Ouellet's endorsement of African-American rights earned him the enmity of white Selmians, who believed blacks were incapable of organizing a sustained protest. They imagined the priest was behind the movement. He was hauled before a grand jury and accused of being a communist, received menacing phone calls in the middle of the night, and endured repeated threats against his life.

Ouellet shared his concerns with a similarly vulnerable black minister. They resolved that, as men of God, they should trust divine providence. Racists might threaten, but "we were just going to go on and do what we thought was the right thing," he said.

Archbishop Thomas Toolen of Mobile, Ala., forbade priests and nuns under his jurisdiction from participating in civil rights demonstrations. He justified his edict out of concern for their safety, exclaiming, "I don't want any dead priests."

This forced Ouellet into a delicate balancing act. He kept his religious superiors informed of his civil rights efforts, but did not always ask their permission.

Ouellet was recuperating from kidney surgery on March 7, 1965, when state troopers savagely attacked nonviolent demonstrators crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in an attempt to march to the state capital in Montgomery. He rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital and aided doctors and nurses dispensing emergency care to the victims. One badly injured man "looked like someone had taken a knife and sliced a piece of his head." The bloodied patient was John Lewis, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman and future congressman. The date would be known as Bloody Sunday.

In response to the attack, King wired religious leaders across the United States, urging them to join the Alabama protest. In Chicago, Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, sprang into action, calling priests sympathetic to civil rights.

"Put on your clericals," he told them. "If you don't wear them anymore, look under your bed." Conference staff worked the phones, mobilizing their network of 112 local Catholic Interracial Councils.

Priests, nuns and laypeople made the pilgrimage to Alabama in unprecedented numbers, adding a distinctive Catholic presence to the Selma protests. Delegations came from all regions:

  • The Syracuse, N.Y., Catholic Interracial Council sent 13 members in a chartered plane.
  • Mundelein College in Chicago dispatched a bus with 28 students and 10 faculty members.
  • From St. Anselm College in New Hampshire came two priests and eight students.
  • The Chicago Catholic Interracial Council sent a group of 34.
  • The New York City contingent included 32 priests and seven laypeople, with 10 more priests coming from Brooklyn.

St. Elizabeth's ran a shuttle, transporting new arrivals from the Birmingham and Montgomery airports. More than 900 Catholics participated in the Selma protests.

King was delighted with the Catholic turnout. During a lull between demonstrations, he confided to Ouellet, "Isn't it wonderful that we are getting all kinds of people coming down, and we're even getting priests and sisters?"

The priest was unimpressed. "Well, it's about time they got here."

King disagreed: "Oh, Father, don't say that. The important thing is that they are here."

Ouellet helped Ahmann set up temporary headquarters for the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice in St. Elizabeth's parish hall. For the next two weeks, Ahmann labored behind the scenes, coordinating the Catholic response.

The Sisters of St. Joseph converted a vacant wing of Good Samaritan Hospital into a temporary dormitory. Other visitors stayed with African-American families. Good Samaritan's dietician, Patricia Robinson, supervised the kitchen staff toiling overtime to prepare meals for the guests. A roster in the hospital lobby was signed by 140 priests, 50 sisters, 29 ministers, four rabbis, 108 laymen and 38 laywomen from 26 states.

Toolen was apoplectic at the sight of protesting nuns: "Certainly the sisters are out of place in these demonstrations. Their place is at home doing God's work. ... What do they know about conditions in the South?"

However, Atlanta newspaperman Ralph McGill was thrilled to see sisters in the vanguard of protest. He reported, "The presence of the Roman Catholic nuns ... inspired the committed and shamed the timorous."

For 10 days, protests continued in Selma. Brown Chapel AME Church was the rallying point for civil rights forces. Mass meetings continued almost nonstop. Daily demonstrations set off for the county courthouse, only to be halted by a police barrier dubbed "the Berlin Wall."

While civil rights supporters waited for permission to march to Montgomery, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced he was sending to Congress the voting rights bill that King demanded. Crowded around television sets, the Selma demonstrators cheered the president's declaration.

On March 17, 1965, Federal Judge Frank Johnson ruled that the march to Montgomery could proceed. Four days later, some 3,000 marchers departed from Selma, this time crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge without incident. King and Rabbi Abraham Heschel led the throng for the first 7 miles.

Judge Johnson's order permitted only 300 people to continue the next three days, with 250 places reserved for local residents and only 50 for out-of-state visitors who could walk all the way. One of these was Sr. Mary Leoline, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a teacher at Christ the King School in Kansas City, Kan. At the end of each day's march, she was driven back to St. Elizabeth's convent, arriving the next morning to resume marching. Another was Jim Letherer, a one-legged activist from the Saginaw, Mich., Catholic Interracial Council; he covered the 54 miles on crutches.

On the last night, the marchers camped at the City of St. Jude, a medical and educational complex on the outskirts of Montgomery operated by the Montgomery diocese. That evening, musical stars, including Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Leonard Bernstein, entertained the crowd.

On March 25, 1965, King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, led a triumphal procession of 25,000 Americans to the steps of the Alabama state capitol. In his oration, King asked his audience how long they would have to wait for freedom. "Not long" was his refrain.

The Selma experience profoundly affected Catholic participants. William Riordan from Santa Barbara, Calif., testified, "All of us felt our lives were enriched by the loving manner in which the Selma Negroes cared for us."

Many marchers were inspired to work for racial justice in their home communities. Fr. James Groppi, assistant pastor of St. Boniface Parish in Milwaukee, returned to Wisconsin "all on fire" for civil rights. In 1967, he organized members of the NAACP Youth Council in a crusade against segregated housing. They marched for 200 days and nights, until the city council passed an open housing ordinance.

When their guests departed, the Edmundites had to contend with an irate Toolen. The archbishop complained that Ouellet "abetted and encouraged" the Selma protest. He was incensed that "all the priests and nuns who are in Selma are being housed and fed by the Edmundite Fathers and that racial meetings are being held in the church." (This charge was untrue. St. Elizabeth's church was too small to accommodate the hundreds of protesters streaming into Selma.)

Toolen issued an ultimatum: "I want Ouellet out of Selma. He is a good priest but crazy on this subject."

St. Elizabeth's heartbroken parishioners petitioned the archbishop to reverse his decision: "We think that your removal of Father Ouellet is wrong and will diminish Catholic influence in this community."

The National Catholic Reporter condemned Ouellet's ouster: "It is surely no answer to the problem [of racial intolerance] to repress the one prophet who is most visibly speaking and acting the truth."

All appeals fell on deaf ears. On June 27, 1965, Ouellet stood at St. Elizabeth's pulpit one last time. He admitted he was saddened, but urged his congregation to remain faithful and refrain from anger: "All that we do, we must do with love. As a person and individual, I matter very little. However, the church matters and matters a great deal."

Related: Find more stories about the Selma march at Global Sisters Report.

[Paul Murray is professor of sociology at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. His research focuses on Catholic activists in the civil rights movement. He encourages movement veterans to contact him at murray@siena.edu.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 27-March 12, 2015 print issue under the headline: 54 miles to freedom.

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